Review | Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order by Charles Hill

I’m always on the look out for new books to read (but what I really need is more time). Suggestions from friends, mentors, reviewers, blogs, and references in other books send me off on an endless cycle: hear about a book, find it on Amazon (or the library), purchase (or check out) said book, bring it home, put it on my bed-stand with great anticipation, read ten pages to a reference of another book, and…repeat. The result is a two-stack, five books per stack, “pile up” next to my bed that has resulted in a reading bottle neck. And, believe me you, it’s a bottleneck that affords me more enjoyable hours than I’ve ever passed in traffic.

That’s all really just a long way of saying that in reading Charles Hill’s “Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order” I constantly found myself adding new books to some real or imagined book list that I may, or may not, ever get a chance to read. Every chapter of Grand Strategies was full of new books that sounded interesting and fascinating. Some–like Mark Twain‘s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Salmon Rushdie‘s “Satanic Verses,” or Thucydides’s “The Peloponnesian War”–I had read and could quickly relate. Others–Xenophon’s “The Persian Expedition” or Marcel Proust‘s “In Search of Lost Time“–were new, at least to me. Worse, especially for my book list, Hill manages to craft his dialogue about each in such a way as to bestow meaning and insight beyond a cursory reading of the text.

For example, though I’ve often heard it referenced and cited as powerful piece of poetry, never had I seen John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” as a commentary on war and the modern polity. And yet, perhaps it is.

But far beyond the politics of the day ‘Paradise Lost’ is Milton’s comprehensive commentary on modern warfare, revolution, founding a polity; on strategy, leadership, intelligence, individual choice under conditions of modern statecraft; and on the justification of God’s ways to men.

Suddenly, the war in heaven, through Milton’s eyes, becomes a proxy for competing views of the world worked out during the Oliver Cromwell English Civil War.

In Hill’s eye, fiction is more than just a story. In literature, we see the great ideas and forces that move history worked out, argued, and recorded. The “international world of states and their modern system is a literary realm,” he argues. “[I]t is where the greatest issues of the human condition are played out.” Nothing may come closer to a thesis for his opus. He continues:

A sacral nature must infuse world order if it is to be legitimate. that order is not to be identified with a particular social system, but to legitimate, the system must hint at the underlying divinely founded order. The modern Westphalian system was conceived when such was the case, but with the Enlightenment’s addition of secularism, science, reason, and democracy, the system increasingly spurned , then forgot, its legitimizing sources of authority.[…] Revolutionary ideology radicalized secularism, science and reason into the task of erasing original sin, o perfecting humanity–all requiring terror to create “the New Man.” Modern efforts to create a sovereignty potent enough to fill the void produced the statist monstrosities of Stalin and Hitler. America became an empire but never gained the understanding to go with it. China is now on its own misguided course.

Thought provoking, insightful, and, of course, full of literature to read when you finish it (including a bibliography of primary and secondary sources that will keep you busy for several years), and reread, Hill’s “Grand Strategies” is a worthy addition to your bed-stand stack. Just make sure you put it on top.


Overall rating5 of 5 stars false

Parent’s guide:

  • Content rating: G to PG, if just because it’s not really geared towards kids
  • Sex: None.
  • Violence: Some reference to war, but it’s non-fiction, folks.
  • Language: None
About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.